By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts
There are few pastimes more nostalgic than getting tucked into bed as a kid and having a story read to you by a loved one. While we may not know exactly how this ritual began, we do know that the centuries-old tradition of reading short bedtime stories before dozing off comes with positive benefits — both that same night and long-term.
With the hectic schedules of today, a consistent bedtime routine might seem out of reach — for both yourself and your kiddos — but if you’re able to, budgeting time each night for a classic fable, a thrilling adventure tale, or a bedtime story made up on the spot can prove to be the wind-down that works wonders for you both. In other words, you can experience the mindful benefits of bedtime stories even after you’ve graduated from grade school.
The beauty of storytelling lies in its universal appeal. No matter how old you are, a captivating tale can unlock emotions, transport you to a faraway land, or teach you something new. But for children, bedtime stories are so much more than just another form of entertainment:
Whether it’s a silly story about Captain Underpants or an epic adventure tale set in Neverland, reading to children is key to cognitive development. One study observing preschool-age kids found that parent-child reading time positively activates areas of the brain associated with mental imagery and narrative understanding.
Bedtime stories provide a prime opportunity for children to feel and understand new feelings in a healthy and constructive way. One 2013 experiment found that temporarily putting a reader in another person’s shoes through literary fiction can measurably enhance their ability to imagine and understand the mental states of others.
Stories can also help kids to better understand their own emotions. “They learn to use words and describe feelings that are otherwise difficult, and this enables them to better control their behavior when they have challenging feelings like anger or sadness,” says Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine.
One of the biggest benefits of storytime is the positive effect they can have on your kids’ vocabulary. A study found that following a language lesson (in this case, a bedtime story) with a period of sleep helps children better retain new vocabulary. In other words, let them sleep on it.
Storytelling’s wealth of benefits isn’t only reserved for childhood: it greatly benefits adults, too. When done solo, reading before bed is a healthy sleep hygiene practice that settles the mind and reduces stress. But if you have an opportunity to share that same experience with your little one, it may help you become a more understanding parent.
Perhaps most notably, the quality time spent together has been proven to help parents and children create a strong, lasting bond. In a 2008 study, mothers of 5-6-year-old children who read frequently to their kids reported having more positive interactions with their children.
Another study found that regular parent-child reading resulted in a decrease of harsh parenting practices and an increase in parental warmth and overall empathy. This may have something to do with the discussions that often come with bedtime stories. When you turn storytime into an interactive experience — perhaps by asking questions like “What do you think will happen next?” or “How did that ending make you feel?” — it can help both parents and children understand each other better, further facilitating a strong connection and bond long after the cover is closed.
Reading aloud is inherently a healthy mindfulness practice: you’re focused on the narrative, and your child is (hopefully) focused on your storytelling. Together, you have stepped away from life’s stresses to share the present moment.
Too tired to talk when bedtime rolls around? One easy way to practice mindful storytime together is to play a Headspace sleepcast* as you settle into bed. This soothing audio experience offers a classic storytime feel with a meditative twist, occupying the mind just enough to find that sweet spot between being engaged and feeling relaxed.
Each one of these sleepcasts transports the listener to a different landscape, but there is no conventional structure — no clear beginning, middle, or end, and not much of a plot either. They’re even remixed each time you listen to them so that every time you tune in, it’s a slightly different story. This way, the mind can’t attach to any fixed storyline, or “know” what is coming next. Each sleepcast is crafted to help the mind wind down, providing a soothing, immersive experience.
Whether you’re participating in a shared reading experience with your kids or setting aside some alone time to read before bed, the proven power of a bedtime story goes well beyond a last dose of entertainment for the day. It’s a brain-boosting, meditative practice that everyone can benefit from, whether you’re age 8 or 80.
*available only to Headspace Plus subscribers